After a Town Is Buried, Controversy Still Rages

Uravan, Colo., and its radioactive contamination have been buried and fenced off.

In Colorado and Virginia residents debate whether proposed uranium mills will help or hinder their economies.

by Rose Jenkins

To reach the place where an entire town had been dismantled and buried in a Superfund cleanup, I traveled through coils of red rock canyons—sheer cliffs that enclosed the Dolores and San Miguel Rivers in southwest Colorado. My guide, Jennifer Thurston, who directs of a mining watchdog group called INFORM Colorado, told me that the tops of these mesas are dotted with old uranium mines—mines that once fed ore to the mill at Uravan.

Rough gravel roads took us to the spot on the San Miguel River where the town of Uravan used to be, the the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and state of Colorado determined the town to be so contaminated that it was unsafe for people to live there. The town, which was home to over 600 people, was evacuated as part of a Superfund cleanup spanning 1986 to 2008. Then every structure—the mill, schools, houses, playgrounds—was torn down, shredded, and buried. Today, the site is off-limits, barricaded by barbed wire fences and yellow signs that warn of radioactive exposure.

Uravan was a company town, named for two minerals that are found together in the ore here—uranium, which is used to make nuclear fuel, and vanadium, which is used to harden steel. Because nearly every family that lived in the town worked at the mines or the mill, nearly all of the residents were struck a personal blow by the epidemic of lung cancer that took place among the miners.

During the last uranium boom—roughly from the 1940s through the 1970s—miners labored in poorly ventilated tunnels that trapped radon from the radioactive ore and diesel exhaust from their machinery. In addition, cigarette smoking in the mine shafts was widespread. Many of the men who worked in these conditions died of lung disease, and others struggle with it still.
But when I asked Bill Chadd, who mined uranium for twelve years, lived in Uravan for ten, and suffers from lung disease, if he thought that a proposed new uranium mill would be good for the area, he said, “You bet.”

Over breakfast in the lobby of The Ray Motel in Naturita, Colo., near the former town of Uravan, he told me, “It would open up about 300 jobs.”

Energy Fuels Inc., has proposed to build a new mill, the Piñon Ridge Mill, less than 10 miles from Uravan. On the other side of the country, a company called Virginia Uranium, LLC proposes to mine and mill uranium in Virginia—my home state.

Uranium has never been extracted in Virginia, but communities in the West have a long history with uranium mining. I have been researching their stories, so Virginians can learn from their experience.

In southwest Colorado I found that the people whose lives were most intertwined with the uranium industry—those who had benefited most directly from its jobs and suffered most intensely from its mistakes—were most ready to give it another go.

Other people, who live and work at a greater remove from the industry, in towns that are prospering without it, see the Piñon Ridge Mill as unacceptably risky. They consider the proposed mill an environmental and public health threat, and they also think that it could derail economic growth in the region. Thurston, who lives in Telluride, Colo., some 50 miles from the Piñon Ridge site, told me, “A uranium mill, in reality, is a radioactive waste dump. The stigma of having radioactive facilities in your community makes it more difficult to attract people.” Read more.

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  1. that town was essentially the price we paid to win WWII. The workers there sacrificed similar to the soldiers who did so to defeat the Japanese.

    I appreciate the article. It was well written and enlightening but I’m no so sure how instructive it is for modern day uranium mining.

    Let’s be clear, it will generate jobs – in an area that needs them but the last I knew it was the left-over tailings that were the issue.

    Perhaps an article on what the specific issues and concerns are with the current proposal in Va.

  2. Your article on Pinion Ridge Uranium Mill covered the environmental side of the argument very well, but I hope you don’t mind if I step in to fill you in on the local environment in the Paradox Valley. There wont be one if we do not get jobs soon.

    I spoke with Hilary White of Sheep Mountain Alliance a few months ago, and she is a very nice woman. Nice, but she is also public enemy number one where I come from. Because she is the figurehead of the many people from afar who have opposed the Pinion Ridge Uranium Mill.

    And most of those who are against it are from afar. This whole mill thing was something I planned on not really getting involved with, because like any other area of the resident it is the only hope I see for an area I love. But then I got involved I nthe upcoming movie and I had to take a stand. My stand is Pro-Nucla.

    There are about 1200 of us here between the towns of Nucla, Naturita and Paradox. The people here travel sixty miles one way treacherous canyon roads to work in those far away places. They are hardly upwind. They go to work in the dark and come home in the dark, and still somehow have to find ways to spend time with their families. And they do it to survive. The mill will be local.

    We do not have a movie theater. We do not have a mall. We do not have mini-golf. No pizza parlor. We barely have town parks. In fact it would be a lot easier to tell you what we do have. Two family owned grocery stores that are roughly the size of your average convenience store. One for each of the major towns. We have a family restaurant in Nucla, a 50’s style diner in Naturita and a mexican fast food restaurant. A few liquor stores. A medical clinic. A bar.

    When I was a teenager we had twice that, and when I was a kid twice that again. We are an area that has been forgotten. Even our own county sometimes forgets we are here. Montrose County pulled dispatch out a few years ago, and we haven’t have a drivers license office for years. We have to drive two hours to do just about anything. Wal-mart? 80 miles one way. Taco Bell, McDonalds, Starbucks? The same. Yes, we are the last place on earth that Starbucks has not yet invaded. They have a flag on top of Mount Everest, but no chain here.

    I tried to explain this to Ms. White as best I could. To have to drive two hours just to get socks and underwear. Our grocery stores are in a bind. They can’t compete with Wal-Mart, even with an extra 160 miles round trip, monthly shopping trips are a fact of life. To deny us jobs at this point is to deny us a future.

    Ask any business owner around here, myself included if they will still be here five years from now if nothing changes. Ask them if they will be here 1 year from now. Some of us aren’t sure we can last another six months. So how long can the environmental money hold out?

    In your article your quote Hilary White as saying, “It would put Telluride immediately downwind of this radioactive waste facility. What if there was some sort of leak that was on national news? What would happen to our tourist industry?”

    Do you have any idea how offensive that statement is after five years of holding our breath just praying the jobs would come. Without those jobs, my town could very well die. And she is worried about their tourist industry?

    What she calls immediately downwind is that same 60 miles of winding mountain roads that our citizens travel. They talk about theoretical air currents carrying our waste upstream but the Town of Telluride didn’t even bother to tell us when a sewer leak affected our drinking water downstream. It wouldn’t matter anyhow, our area is where their resort sends both their sewer and their garbage to be processed. Our uranium is no more likely to travel upstream than their feces was, but that wasn’t their problem then it was ours. So why isn’t our uranium our problem too?

    For five years or more local residents have been hanging on in hopes that the Pinion Ridge Mill really will be built and there will be life in our area once again. That we wont have to lock up our businesses and walk away from our homes.

    And that is one question that nobody really asks us. “What happens if the jobs don’t come…”

    Then we have to leave. Many of us will have no choice. Many of our husbands have already started looking. That probably doesn’t mean much to someone who has lived in the city their whole lives, but I’ve lived here nearly half of mine. In the same homes, on the same streets. My grandmother had been here since the 1940’s and my grandfathers family goes all the way back to the pioneers. We would be leaving everything behind. Even our roots.

    They have saved a former uranium mining town, with a history dating back to the 1930’s, from itself. They have saved us from jobs and a life. Well done. Well done.

    Lets face it, our economy depends on cheap and accessible energy, but our future depends on reducing carbon emissions. Protecting the environment is important for everybody’s future, and that is why I believe in the future of nuclear technologies. It is cleaner and safer than the alternatives, while it will require many options to continue powering our growing population nuclear power is part of that equation. As the fuel from the U.S./Russia arms treaty runs out there will be a huge demand for uranium. There are some 435 nuclear power reactors currently operating in the world, with an additional 60 being built. The new pebble bed reactors are far safer than the old technologies. And cleaner.

    There is no such thing as a risk free fuel source, and even mining has its risks. But uranium mining has the potential to not only revive the local economy, but it has the potential to put our country back on the map as a fuel exporter. And clean up our environment.

    I still have one major problem with all of the friends of the environment who are trying to stop the Pinion Ridge Mill. Where are their options?

    They toss out ideas like “retirement communities, agriculture, greenhouses, recreation, tourism, solar energy” but where are the investors to make it happen. The only people who have been willing to invest here are the people that these groups are trying to run out. Where are all of their green groups protesting to save the endangered people here?

    We’ve had a lot of promises over the years. People who think it is as easy as pointing a magic wand and replacing an industry. Where are the people who are going to make it happen? Our average household incomes of 39k are stretched a bit thin here, that’s per household not per person. We don’t have the money to invest, or the time it takes to make nothing while we build our businesses.

    These outside groups have spent a great deal of money to keep jobs from coming to our area. I know that was just an unintentional side effect of their campaign for the greater good but why has all of the money gone into lawsuits? They are keeping people from surviving. It could have gone into economic development, it could have gone to helping us build new businesses and attract a solid tourism base. Help us revive main street.

    But it didn’t. They were perfectly willing to tear something down but they offered nothing in its place.

    When I met with Ms. White she said that she has to make sacrifices to live in Telluride too. She works three jobs to maintain her lifestyle. I have to admit, I don’t know too many people here who work three jobs. There just aren’t that many to be had. I know a lot of people who work hard. I know people who run their family business alone, because they can’t afford help. I know people who were driving to Telluride a few years ago to make $32 an hour and now they are expected to do the same job for half that. And still drive 600 miles a week to do it. It isn’t worth it.

    I’ve seen the people from the other side criticize us, but I haven’t seen any of them offer a real answer. And every time I see them howl out a victory in the delay of the mill, I hear my friends and neighbors give up just a little bit more hope. People here are suffering while the environmentalists are celebrating.

    People here can’t hold out much longer. Without money coming in, there is no survival. That is a choice the environmentalists have made for us. We may have to leave our homes because of their actions. And in the same breath they talk of their resort economy.

    They tend to think of themselves as a liberal community, but there are just a greener version of wealthy. And we are and always have been their slave class. We do their laundry, drive their cars, and clean their condos. They have the luxury of spending the next five years in courtrooms just to say they did something good for the environment and the future of mankind.

    Uravan is no longer there because it was a whole town built on what could be stolen from Union Carbide. Contaminated building materials used to patch homes built on contaminated soil. We don’t use mill tailings for construction anymore, and we know not to wash our husbands laundry with the rest of the families. We can only assume that the new safety regulations will only make uranium mining even safer.

    So, no Telluride’s snow does not glow, and spreading that kind of misinformation is not helping us. We are old stock. We are mining stock. Our grandfathers mined the uranium that led us to victory in WWII. Not one of us really glow. We don’t have two-headed babies or children with three arms. Average intelligence. Average skills. Nobody I know is sprouting any huge tumors from odd places. Our miners have a higher rate of cancer than average, but those were coal miners as well as uranium. Mining has its risks. So does construction. So does the ski industry.

    How the environmental groups can continue to talk about saving the environment while totally ignoring the people who are being hurt by their actions is maddening. We need jobs and we need them now but the jobs that we are counting on to save is are tied up in green bureaucratic tape.

    I don’t know if I will be able to feed my family next month… keep my business open… and there are mines and jobs waiting for groups like Sheep Mountain Alliance to get out of the way.

    So please… get out of our way.

  3. Boshemia captures the essence of jobs vs potential harm.

    Many, many places in Va, NC, and other states have been seriously economically damaged when their industry went away – like textiles and furniture.

    The question is, how much are people will to sacrifice on the environment side to preserve their town, homes and businesses?

    And, are only the people who live there the ones to decide impacts that could be regional or wider?

    Jobs at any cost are not a good deal so the question becomes – at what cost – and who pays.

    The original site is now a superfund site and all the jobs it provided are now being paid for with taxpayer money to clean up the site.

    At the end of the day, given the tradeoffs – was it worth it?

    Towns shrivel up and die fairly routinely when their one industry goes away. Georgia and South Caroline are littered with these towns.

    What’s the right answer?

  4. reed fawell Avatar
    reed fawell

    What’s the right answer? One right answer is to live in the real world. Canada is one of the largest miners of uranium in the World. Go to their Government website, and get their fact based opinion grounded on long and deep experience on the dangers posed today by Uranium mining, using modern technology in the modern World. Secondly, beware of anyone who resists such investigation and analysis.

  5. Reed – have you seen how the Canadians are doing the Tar Sand extractions?

  6. reed fawell Avatar
    reed fawell

    No – But if it (and other Canadian) experiences have relevance to the Virginia Uranium question, it should be delved into when considering Virginia.

  7. I’m not sure the Canadians are good models for natural resource extraction. They heavy into rape and pillage of the landscape.

  8. reed fawell Avatar
    reed fawell

    Gotta do better than that Larry.


    but do a google image search on Canada Tar Sands or similar

    It’s a mess… and not going to be easy to re-mediate

  10. reed fawell Avatar
    reed fawell

    What does photo have to do with Virginia?

    1. The photo has nothing to do with Virginia… directly. It just supports Rose’s article, which has everything to do with Virginia.

  11. well the question is .. what would Virginia look like if we were to do mining like we see in the photos.

    Are we talking about shaft mining or surface mining? If we’re talking about surface mining.. in a region where we get 40 inches of rain a year… it’s not going to get support and it should not.

    open pit mining in arid areas is a different deal but even in those areas, ultimately there are problems with the exposed materials.

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